Almost 15 years have passed since the General Board of Global Ministries deemed Mission Honduras an official initiative of The United Methodist Church. Since then, the UMC's presence has grown significantly across the country, with Hondurans relying heavily on short-term volunteer mission teams from the United States for support in the areas of health care, economic development, education, construction and environmental aid.
At the same time, like any third-world country plagued by widespread poverty, unemployment and drug trafficking, Honduras has seen crime and violence steadily worsen within its borders. In recent years, the U.S. State Department has issued travel warnings for American citizens, noting that Honduras’ murder rate is one of the highest in the world.
According to the most recent travel advisory issued in August, 37 U.S. citizens have been murdered in Honduras since 2011, with three of those taking place this year. The statistics are sobering and have led some mission groups to cancel their travel plans in the past few years, said Sandy Raasch, the United Methodist Volunteers in Mission (UMVIM) coordinator in Honduras. “To some degree, I think that’s probably why I don’t get a lot of new teams,” she said. “It’s because they read all of that.”
|According to the World Bank, more than 63 percent of the population in Honduras lives in extreme poverty. Additionally, the country faces the challenge of rampant crime and violence.|
Raasch, who has served as a full-time missionary in Honduras for the past 11 years, has mixed emotions on the topic of in-country violence. “I think Honduras gets a bad rap, to be really honest,” she said. “Yes, we have gangs. I don’t want to say we don’t. It’s a third-world country, but guess what? L.A., Chicago and everywhere else has gangs, too.”
Ultimately, even in the face of increased risk, the mission team pipeline between Honduras and the states has remained intact—primarily through God’s grace and UMVIM’s commitment to keeping its volunteers safe, Raasch said.
“Every decision I make is security,” she said. “Is the way I’m going to drive the safest? Is this hotel safest? Is this food the safest? Safety is my number one priority because I know that’s something that can make or break my program.”
On an annual basis, she hosts 28 to 30 short-term mission teams a year from multiple states including Louisiana, Wisconsin, Mississippi, Georgia, Illinois, Kansas and Missouri. The volunteers arrive with myriad skills, eager to do everything from pulling teeth and rocking babies to mixing cement and teaching English. Raasch picks them up at the airport, accompanies them on their one- or two-week stay, provides all of their transportation and provides local translators.
“We would love to receive more teams than we get, but it needs to be a personal choice,” Raasch said. “I tell everybody, ‘We are a third-world country, so you need to pray about it. I can’t give you a guarantee that nothing will happen.’ If they come, and they have a hesitancy, they won’t enjoy it. They’ll just be scared the whole time.”
‘Fixed through love’
Retired United Methodist pastors Gary and Amparo Garay know firsthand the dangers of living and working in Honduras. As missionaries in Danlí—a city just north of the Nicaraguan border—from 1998 to 2002, they served communities plagued by unemployment, gang violence and homelessness.
“Once we were shot at,” Amparo recalled. “I really don’t know if they were aiming at us or if it was a lost bullet, but it did hit the windshield of our car and destroyed it.
“We lived there for four years, and yes, we were robbed. We were victims of violence, and we still found our place there.” Over time, they learned how to make their way safely, avoiding certain areas at certain times of the day and night.
The Garays found that the Honduran people, in their extreme poverty, were often receptive to the Gospel, taking refuge and hope in the scriptures. They also saw many young people turn to the maras,or gangs, because they provided the acceptance and belonging so many wanted but did not have at home. “We learned that there’s a social evil, but that it is not hopeless,” Amparo said. “It can be fixed through love.”
|Pastor Amparo Garay makes an alter call during a church service in Honduras, where she served as a missionary with her husband Gary from 1998 to 2002.|
At one Wednesday night church service, the Garays unknowingly welcomed members of the Los Pives Locos gang—“The Crazy Kids”—and its rival, Los Angeles del Infierno—“The Angels of Hell”—to pray and sing. Although fearful and unsure at first, Gary and Amparo persevered and over time earned the trust of Los Pives Locos and went on to minister to many of the gang members.
“We introduced them to micro loans,” Amparo said. “Our church loaned them the money to start a small business selling hygiene products. They returned the money to the church, and we were able to bring many out of the gang environment.”
The rules matter
The Garays, who are retired from the Florida United Methodist Conference, look back on their service in Honduras, and even the danger that came with it, as a blessing. Today Gary, who is 65, and Amparo, who is 62, continue to take mission teams to Honduras once a year, and, like Raasch, their main focus is keeping their volunteers safe.
“Before we leave with our mission teams, we train them,” Amparo said. “One of the things they learn is they cannot go and walk by themselves in the city. They have to stay together as a group. They cannot wear jewelry that is flashy. We make sure the cars we use for our transportation are the property of the church.” Raasch drills these same instructions into all of her teams, even those who return every year.
“The problem I sometimes have is teams coming so long that they get comfortable,” she said. “They say, ‘We’ve been coming to this community and people know us!’ But I say, ‘Wait a minute, people. The economy changes, and things get harder, and you can be a target if you don’t listen to us.’”
The bottom line, Raasch said, is safety is paramount. “We have rules, and as long as people stay within what we tell them, we don’t have any issues,” she said.
--Kari C. Barlow is a freelance writer who lives in the Fort Walton Beach area.
Editor's Note: For one woman, returning to Honduras after nearly 20 years has become a lost dream. Click here for a story about how missions to this country can be an uphill battle for Cuban nationals.
Want to help?
The United Methodist Church in Honduras welcomes short-term mission volunteers in the areas of construction, medical clinics, education, leadership training, small business development, clean water projects and evangelism. Volunteers commit their presence, prayers and resources on an ongoing basis while they are revitalized and renewed as they witness to the faith of the Honduran sisters and brothers.
If interested in participating, contact United Methodist Volunteers in Mission Coordinator Sandy Raasch in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, at firstname.lastname@example.org.